State blazing a 'Hallelujah Trail' for tourists
32 North Alabama churches will be featured in driving tour
By Melanie B. Smith
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Fried chicken served on church grounds, Huntsville's Oakwood College choir singing spirituals and a crowd flapping hand fans launched a "Hallelujah Trail" driving tour of 32 North Alabama churches.
Tourism and government officials revealed the trail and its markers Thursday at a new amphitheater and patio of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, one of the honored churches.
Marsha Folsom, wife of Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., said the churches are signposts of community heritage and "places of visual and spiritual wonder."
The concept fits with Alabama's Year of the Arts in tourism, said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, which helped fund the project.
Other money for the $134,000 project came from the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
St. John's members may not yet realize their church is a tourist destination, said the Rev. Richard Lawson, rector. The Gothic stone building dates from 1893. Originally facing north, it was turned to face east in 1940.
Lawson said he likes the concept of the trail and its attention to churches' contributions in art and architecture.
St. John's has taken pains to preserve its historic building. A recent renovation made no architectural changes to the sanctuary, Lawson said.
Each of the 16 counties that are part of the AMLA submitted two churches for the trail, said Dana Lee Jennings, director. She said each county's tourism officials and chamber of commerce picked the two in consultation with historians.
The church buildings had to be architecturally sound, still in use, on their original sites and at least 100 years old, officials said. They had to be accessible and have a contact person with a phone number to publish.
Jennings proposed the idea. She said it is modeled after a "Glory Trail" in Tennessee.
"Nothing, I think, is stronger to a Southerner than his spiritual and cultural heritage," she said.
Jennings said people are interested in church buildings for their social histories as well as for their designs. Each church has a story to tell, she said.
Civil War-era churches
Jeanette Dunnavant, tourism director of the Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, said she sent letters to churches and asked for nominations through a newspaper. Three submitted information, she said.
The two Limestone County picks have 19th century buildings that are still used each Sunday. Athens First Presbyterian Church was built in 1852. Union soldiers during the Civil War used the building to stable horses and burned its pews for firewood.
Cambridge United Methodist near Tanner was constructed before the Civil War and restored in 1873 after Union troops damaged it. The Rev. David Parker said the Cambridge congregation of about 15 meets each Sunday. He said members think the recognition is wonderful and already put up their special marker.
The other Morgan County selection is the Hartselle Tabernacle. The open-sided structure has its original cedar log timbers. Volunteers built it before the turn of the century to house the Hartselle Camp Meeting, which continues today.
Vicki Morese, president of Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, said the church trail is a way rural communities can participate in tourism. One of Lawrence County's selections, Courtland Presbyterian Church, was built of bricks made by slaves in the 1850s and survived a 1957 fire. Pine Torch Church in Lawrence County's Bankhead National Forest dates to about 1`850. It is made of poplar logs and has a tin roof.
Two of the 32 religious structures are Baptist, 12 are Methodist and five are Presbyterian. One is a synagogue, Temple B'Nai Shalom in Huntsville.
Some churches are primitive, not even having indoor plumbing. Others have impressive stained glass or elegant woodwork, officials said.
The Hallelujah Trail guides include a map, photos of each church made by Decatur photographer Charles Seifried, and church descriptions, addresses and phone numbers.
Jennings said it was intriguing to witness the devotion of people to their churches.
Jean Payne, one of the representatives of Helton Memorial Chapel, a Baptist church near Stephenson, said the congregation was a little shocked to be featured "but really glad."
Trail guides will be placed at Alabama Welcome Centers, hotels, trade shows and other locations. Churches on the trail will hold their own celebrations, Jennings said.
AMLA presented $1,000 checks for each county to create localized historic church leaflets. Already out is Morgan County's "Amen Trail" brochure describing 17 additional churches.
Tami Reist, director of the Decatur/Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the leaflets will be put at Welcome Centers and other locations to promote more local church history.
The Hallelujah Trail will be featured in an issue of "National Geographic Traveler" magazine next year, officials said.
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